Unlike traditional color guard teams, which perform outdoors on a football field or parade route accompanied by a marching band or drum corps, winter guard teams perform indoors to recorded music.
In competitions, winter guard teams are judged in the areas of talent, precision, creativity, and horizontal orchestration (how all the elements create the larger picture/effect). Performances incorporate equipment (including flags, rifles, and sabres), props, and dance moves.
Guard members incorporate many different styles of dance into their shows, depending on the different types of music chosen and the themes of the shows. Dance is usually incorporated into the equipment work, and is performed seamlessly throughout the show.
In competition settings, each winter guard team is allotted a set amount of time to set up staging (including a vinyl floor if the guard is using one, and any props associated with the performance), place all equipment, perform the show, and remove staging, props, and equipment. Setup and tear-down typically run two minutes each, and performances run around five minutes. Judges impose penalties on teams that run past the allotted time.
Winter Guard ensembles commonly perform at judged competitions officiated by local and regional associations using criteria developed by Winter Guard International.